|The development of Lofton (above) will speed up under Peterson's tutelage.
|Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI|
27 at New England
11 at San Francisco
25 at Dallas
2 at New Orleans (M)
15 at Carolina
22 at N.Y. Giants
29 TAMPA BAY
13 NEW ORLEANS
20 at N.Y. Jets
3 at Tampa Bay
Matt Ryan, Quarterback: Matt Ryan ranked sixth in the NFC in passing yards (3,440) and
quarterback rating (87.7%) on the way to being named Offensive Rookie of the
Year in 2008, and it figures that the franchise passer will have an even better
season now that he has his feet under him. Literally. Ryan spent most of the
off-season sharpening his footwork, adjusting the pace and depth of his
drop-backs in an effort to get better in sync with receivers Roddy White,
Michael Jenkins and All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, whom Atlanta acquired from
Kansas City in April for a second-round draft pick.
"They all move at such different speeds," Ryan says. "The speed and the
rhythm of my drops are affected as much by the route as who's running it. This
year I feel like I've gotten much better at [knowing] what those guys do
and the role my feet play in helping them get the ball in the right
When it comes to throwing to Gonzalez in particular, Ryan is finding
that he has slack with which to work. "He makes me a much better
quarterback because he just catches every ball that comes his way," says Ryan,
adding that the tape he screened of Gonzalez shortly before the eight-time
All-Pro came to the team didn't do his new tight end justice. "He's way better
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Youth is served in the remaking of the defense, but a knowledgeable veteran will be central to its success.
While installing his Cover 2 scheme last year, coach Mike Smith showed
tape of the defenses he had coordinated in Jacksonville the five seasons
previous. What stood out most to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was the man
playing his position, Mike Peterson. "He was always going downhill, smashing
somebody and making plays," says the 6-foot, 248-pound Oklahoma product, who was
Atlanta's fourth-leading tackler as a rookie in 2008. "I was just like, Man,
this guy is good."
Since the Falcons signed Peterson to a two-year, $6.5 million deal in March,
Lofton has been able to learn directly from the 11-year pro. Peterson, who
thrived under Smith's direction in Jacksonville, will now line up on the
outside -- where he alighted his first four years in the league, with
Indianapolis -- to accommodate Lofton and buttress Atlanta's porous run defense.
In meetings Peterson sits next to Lofton and patiently fields his numerous
questions. "He wants to know what I'm looking at before the play and as it's
going on," says Peterson, who also helps by translating the scheme's jargon.
Peterson's addition is just part of the makeover for a Falcons defense that
jettisoned five starters after finishing as the league's eighth-worst unit
against the run and ninth-worst overall. Atlanta drafted seven defensive players
in April, most notably Peria Jerry, a 6' 2", 294-pound tackle from
Ole Miss at No. 24, who is expected to start immediately. (Rookies William
Moore, a safety, and Lawrence Sidbury, a defensive end, will rotate in as well.)
The holdovers promoted to starting spots include free safety Thomas DeCoud,
outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Overall the changes will make the Atlanta D more athletic but considerably
less experienced. To compensate, the unit spent extra time in camp going over
assignments in an effort to curb freelancing. "Last year there'd be times when a
guy didn't trust the scheme and would try to make a play on his own instead of
holding his gap where the defense is designed for someone else to make a play,"
says strong safety Erik Coleman. "I've got to trust that if I stay outside on
this run support, the 'backer's going to be inside to make the tackle."
If any linebacker can be trusted to be where he's supposed to, it's Peterson.
He not only has unwavering faith in the scheme -- he's racked up nearly 1,000
career tackles in the system -- but is also a big believer in Smith, to whom he is
fiercely loyal. After Smith left Jacksonville to take the job in Atlanta,
Peterson fell out of favor with the Jaguars coaching staff. His muscle-flexing
sack celebration in a Week 9 loss to the Bengals that dropped the Jags to 3-5
led to a clash with coach Jack Del Rio; after that game Del Rio scolded Peterson
and other players for their efforts, and made it clear he didn't want to hear
any backtalk from them. When the linebacker fired back at Del Rio anyway, the
coach banished him from the team facility for two days, fined him $10,000 for
insubordination and benched him the following week against Detroit.
Now reunited with Smith and in an environment where he feels his input is not
just welcome but sought after, Peterson is eager to put that episode behind him.
His good citizenship shows in the mentoring role he is playing with his young
teammates. In Lofton he sees a talent who -- with a little nudging -- could help carry
Atlanta deeper into the playoffs than their wild-card appearance last year.
"He's a young guy who's willing to listen, and that lets you know he wants to
be a good ballplayer," Peterson says. "I tell him all the time that to be one of
the top linebackers, you've got to be able to do everything: play the run, play
the pass. And he can do it. It's just a matter of pulling it out of him and
making sure he does it on a consistent basis."
-- Andrew Lawrence